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Open Water
Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Review Date:
9.14.04

Open Water is a movie shot in digital video and directed by Chris Kentis. It was cheaply made and boasts no digital or special effects, unlike its predecessor, the ur-shark film, Jaws, which it cites in a very discreet fashion (at one point we see the two main characters' name tags and their surnames are the surnames of a young boy and girl who are killed by sharks in the 1975 film).

What most of us know about this movie-which most of us won't go see-is that the actors, Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan, who play an athletic thirty-something couple vacationing from their high-powered jobs in the Caribbean, spent 120 hours in the water, wore metal mesh under their wet suits to protect themselves from shark bites, hung out in the ocean with only 2 or 3 camera crew members, and-a thing you won't know watching the film-were tethered to the boat so that they couldn't drift. There are real sharks in the movie, handled by a well-known shark wrangler, Stuart Cove, and some of them are, as I understand it, tame, though I am not at all sure what constitutes a tame shark.

So a young couple decides to take a vacation in the Caribbean and one of the things they do is go on a scuba diving tour of the colorful flora and fauna on the ocean floor. The guy is a diving amateur, since he refers at several points to his reading of diving magazines, and it's clear that both of them are accustomed to adventurous vacationing. In any case, this dive seems very tame. You go out in a boat, everyone suits up, jumps in, tours for half an hour and then gets back in the boat. Folks are told that the sharks are pretty lazy out there and not particularly interested in humans. And indeed, for much of the film, this seems more or less to be the case. So our protagonists dive in and, because of a simple error of calculation-one of the guides miscounts the number of people in the boat and takes off thinking his entire crew has been accounted for-Daniel and Susan get left behind.

I know, I know, you think this is a shark movie because that's how it's been billed. Well, not true. I mean, yes, the sharks eventually figure quite prominently in the outcome of the story, but that's really not the point. What this film does and does so successfully is paint a portrait of a completely plausible middle-class couple-I forgot these were actors-and create a strong identification that binds the viewer to them throughout. These folks talk to each other, love each other, and fight just like real people. The long preparation for the trip, where the camera spends a great deal of time simply tracking Daniel and Susan's ordinary togetherness, sets us up for the pathos of what transpires in the near twenty-four hours they are stranded and adrift in the ocean. So, although there's plenty of "action" in the sense of being afraid to look at the screen, what you really come away with is a kind of overwhelming sadness. Nothing they do is particularly heroic, nothing they say is especially inspiring, and yet they are heroes, testaments to some of the truly beautiful qualities of ordinary human beings faced with extraordinary circumstances. And the love between them, ordinary as it is, also moves us with its ring of truth. In short, I was impressed. The movie manages to be completely genuine and strangely quiet at the same time. No melodrama, not even all that much drama. And the conclusion is even sadder because of it.

There's a sort of surprise ending, which I'll withhold just in case I've managed to persuade any of you to see it (and don't worry-it's not too gory at all). But it too brings dignity and grace to Open Water, elevating it to a level of seriousness that none of the publicity prepared me for. Try to steel yourself to see it…as a bonus; it's really short, clocking in at a mere 80 minutes.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.